Testing 1, 2, 3

Peter Wood

Starting this week and for the next two weeks, many American high school students are taking Advanced Placement exams. The optional AP tests are a means of getting pre-college credit for freshman courses. The exams are also the basis for advanced placement high school courses in core subjects. 

On the eve of the exams this year the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released an important report, Growing Pains in the Advanced Placement Program: Do Tough Trade-offs Lie Ahead?  The Fordham report draws on a survey of 1,024 AP teachers, conducted by the Farkas Duffett Research Group.   Generally, it testifies to the worries of the high school teachers that AP courses are being flooded by students who are not capable of performing at the high level demanded by the AP curriculum.

Six years ago, the National Association of Scholars headlined much the same news in our journal Academic Questions. In “Declining Credibility for the AP Program,” William Casement warned that the ballooning enrollments in AP courses had undercut their original purpose of giving “a few accomplished high school students in their senior year” the opportunity to do genuine college-level work. AP once meant studying under highly-qualified teachers in courses where the students would “read college texts, comprehend college-level concepts, and move at a pace necessary to complete college-level work successfully.”

As Casement observed, the number of students enrolled in AP courses had grown at a rate that far outstripped the growth in the number of students who could reasonably be said to be prepared for those courses. AP testing started in the early 1950s, and by 1956, 1,200 students took a total of 2,000 AP exams:

By 1961, the numbers were 18,000 exams and 13,000 students; in 1971, 74,000 and 58,000; in 1981, 178,000 and 134,000; in 1991, 535,000 and 359,000; and in 2001, 1.4 million and 845,000. In 2003, 1.7 million exams were taken by one million students.

The New York Times reported last week that in 2008, at least 1.6 million students took at least one AP exam, and 2.7 million exams were taken.   For those who like dizzying percentages, the 2008 cohort represents an 89 percent increase in test-takers since 2001, and a 2,659 percent increase since 1971. Moreover, that low-balls the problem, since, in 2003, when Casement was writing, a third of the students who took the high school AP courses didn’t bother to take the exams. 

The Fordham study confirms and extends Casement’s analysis.  The survey asked the teachers to explain the growth, and “Only 32 percent attribute AP growth to more students who want to be challenged at a higher academic level.”   The courses now attract large number of students “who want their college applications to look better,” and they are used by schools in an attempt to improve their images.   The logic is that the more students are enrolled in AP classes, the more “serious” the school looks to the community.   Administrators are also putting unprepared students in AP courses to improve “diversity,” and parents are eager to push their children into these supposedly prestige courses. All in all, 56 percent of the teachers said, “too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads.” 

Not everyone thinks this is an unhappy development. For over a decade, the Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews has championed opening up AP courses to anyone who wants to take them. He derides the “Olympus syndrome” of high school teachers who want to reserve the courses for the very best students, and believes that average students can gain something valuable from the courses too. Mathews has responded to the Fordham report with delight. It offers, in his view, “the most hopeful news I have seen in a long time on the future of the [AP] program, and its accessibility to the middle-of-the-pack high school students I think need it most.”   Mathews takes particular pleasure from the report that 69 percent of the AP teachers said their courses are open to any student, without a GPA requirement or teacher approval. 

There is certainly room for debate on these matters, and though I disagree with Mathews’ position, I recognize several factors that weigh in his favor.   First, we have to concede that AP courses are no longer an index of unusual academic talent among high school students. They once provided an opportunity for such students to study important subjects in a setting where the pace was set by their talent and not by the need to help the less-talented keep up. That was a wonderful thing while it lasted. As Will Fitzhugh, the editor of The Concord Review, often reminds us, American secondary education fosters elite athletic talent in myriad ways but it typically ignores and discourages exceptional academic talent. AP courses used to serve as places such students could begin to discover their actual reach. 

But that era is over. AP courses are now something else entirely, and we might as well try to take the measure of what they are, rather than lament the loss of what they once were.

Second, high schools in general are such dreadfully poor places to learn that it is hard to blame students and parents from wanting to climb aboard the few available lifeboats. AP courses offer the closest thing to actual academic standards in many of our high schools. The AP teachers are not always first-rate but they are frequently a cut above other teachers.   If AP courses are the best or the only option to get a smattering of education during the four-year trudge through the sub-mediocrity of the American high school, why not sign up? 

Third, Mathews makes much of the idea that even students who perform poorly in AP courses or who score in the basement on AP exams often gain something from taking the courses. On down the line, they do better in their college courses than students who didn’t take AP courses.   I don’t doubt it. 

But granting all this, I don’t think it is really good news that the AP courses and the AP exams have become “open admissions” vehicles.   The gains for Mathews’ “middle-of-the-pack high school students” are largely illusory. They are gains made at the expense of the continued lowering of academic standards, both in the AP courses and in many of the college courses that these students will take later. 

When William Casement was writing about this in 2003, the evidence was already in hand. The upper academic tier colleges and universities were already refusing to grant AP credit, or restricting it to students who had top scores on the AP exams. Numerous college faculty members were complaining that students who had “placed out” of first-year college courses and enrolled directly in more advanced courses were woefully unprepared. AP courses and exams had already become an exercise in false advertising. The students who had taken these “advanced” courses weren’t advanced. They had, in reality, simply completed what in the old days would have been recognized as an ordinary “college preparatory” course.

The answer, I think, is that the current AP system needs to be revised. If we want a system of better-than-average high school courses for college-bound students, by all means let’s build on the AP model, which seems pretty good. Then we can retire the current the college preparatory courses high schools now offer, which really prepare no one for college.   We should also dispense with the notion of college credit and actual advanced placement for students who take these courses. Students who avail themselves of this option may save some money, but it is seldom a wise savings. The courses they skip are the ones they most need. 

The AP exam might lose its luster if it ceases to be an avenue for college credit or advanced placement, but it could still play an important role in college admissions, especially if the SAT continues to sink into politically-correct obsolescence. 

Of course, it is up to the colleges to decide what they will accept in lieu of actual learning. We have lots of colleges today that grant academic credit for internships, community service, and other activities of negligible academic value. In the last presidential election, quite a few colleges and universities offered students academic credit for volunteering for the Obama campaign. (But, in most cases, not for the McCain campaign.) So if some colleges wanted to award academic credit for AP courses, no one will stop them. But we could at least begin to discourage the idea and stigmatize the colleges that engage in what amounts to small-scale intellectual fraud.

I‘ve often said that plagiarism and falsifying research data are not the only forms of academic dishonesty. The AP exam should probably be added to the list. It has become a mildly ambitious high school course and that’s all. Let’s drop the pretence that the course or the exam represent the equivalent of a worthwhile college course. 

This isn’t news that any of the 1.6+ million students sitting for an AP exam this month want to hear.   Don’t show your 17-year old this article ‘til AP month is over.           

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